My majors- and minors-only course on Modern Christian Thought continued to impress this week, with the week's sessions being devoted to Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Not surprisingly, Bonhoeffer generated the most comment and excitement, especially on Thursday as we went over our primary source readings and responded to a selection of The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer's challenge to the notion of "cheap grace" went over with appreciation among the students, who responded with some zest to confronting diluted or self-serving forms of spirituality. But there was some serious response to Barth as well, and I was pleased at how the students handled the two of them together, both noticing the critique of earlier 19th century Protestant Liberalism, but also how Barth's interest in emphasizing God as "Wholly Other" (in contrast to the "tamed God" of Protestant Liberalism, who was so easily identified with German bourgeois culture) was still perhaps too detached from humanity, despite Barth's theology of the Word of God as the source of revelation. Bonhoeffer's focus on discipleship, then, and a more immediate, relational picture of Jesus served as both critique and correction of Barth, they judged, and that concrete grounding in Christ, Church and ethics served to allow God to be recognized as Wholly Other without being Wholly Removed.
Bonhoeffer's critique of the failings of German Christian culture as it secularized Christianity into a cultural trapping rather than true discipleship led to interesting discussion as I then pointed out how Bonhoeffer tried to re-articulate Christian faith in what scholars today often refer to as a "post-Christian culture." Bonhoeffer was contrasted with Nietzsche on this point, who only saw in his prophetic announcement of this culture that "God is dead!" while Bonhoeffer looked to a new, more minority reestablishment of serious Christian faith in and beyond this watershed. I pointed out the curiously Lutheran language of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI on this point, of the Christian future looking toward a smaller, more faithful Church, as he and many others have suggested, while another interpretation of the "next step" beyond a post-Christian culture is the attempt to once again establish a dominantly Christian culture, though now schooled by the experience of Modernity and its critique or rejection of Christian faith. The students stirred up quite an interesting debate about themselves as to whether or how these positions on the Church's future relation to wider culture were or were not living up to Christian ideals: did the idea of a smaller, "purer" Church forsake the call to evangelization? Did the idea of establishing a "neo-Christendom" fail to take seriously the Christian gospel's intrinsic challenge to the world in favor of some sort of rapprochement with a dominant culture? What would or could come next after a post-Christian culture phase of the history of the Church? These questions set up the class nicely for next week's look at the American "Christian Realism" of the 20th century, as we study Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, and read from the latter's classic Christ and Culture with its discussion of various relational paradigms between Christ (or God or Church) and culture.